Morocco: Merchoui had a Little Lamb

Merchoui Alley sits between two bustling medina streets like a comma in the middle of a sentence. Breaking up the rows of carpet sellers, glistening brass lamps and fabrics every colour the mind could think of, this alley has five or six shops all selling the same thing; lamb. A haze of smoke hangs above the dusty thoroughfare. Clay pots the colour of earth line each stall, some topped with the cooked head of a sheep, like a macabre shop sign. The smell of cumin and turmeric clings to the warm air.

We spent the evening with Salim, a Marrakech local and food guide. He gave us an introduction to the medina over mint tea poured high so that bubbles frothed against the glass. We talked about his school days in the Atlas Mountains over greasy savoury donuts and discussed religion over sweet honey cakes that stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Marrakech donuts

As the sun dipped below the rose-hued rooftops, Salim led us through the labyrinthine souks to Merchoui Alley. At the back of a lamb shop, we peered down into a deep hole in the ground. A blast of hot air carrying the smell of cooking meat hit me. In the darkness under our feet there was enough room for an entire flock of lambs to roast slowly. And indeed Merchoui Alley provides most of the city of Marrakech with its daily lamb. Entire carcasses, yellowed with turmeric, are mounted on sticks thick as broom handles and lowered into the ground to cook for 24 hours. Teenage boys on rusty old mopeds weave through the narrow streets dispatching it to restaurants, cafés and riad kitchens.

Marrakech lamb pots

We ate melt-in-your-mouth meat stuffed into pockets of warm flat bread. Cumin and salt were the only seasoning. In the fading light stall merchants and shopkeepers shouted to each other and street cats with pointed North-African faces slunk between meat sellers. We talked with Salim about life in the Medina, and the tagines his mother made him as a child. As the sun set the call to prayer floated through twilight. Voices melting together and reaching a crescendo.

 

On the final night of our week in Morocco we returned to Marrakech, tired from a 12 hour drive from the desert, sand from a sandstorm lined my pockets and peppered my hair. I had booked us into a top end hotel for one night. For a treat. The lobby was as vast as the Sahara, all marble, glistening chandeliers and brass baggage carts that winked in the light. The crisp-suited man behind the desk looked at our slept-in clothes, our tired eyes and bulging rucksacks and gave us a  “you don’t belong here” look. We trekked across the pool area to our room. Guests in smooth skirts and buttoned up shirts sipped elaborate cocktails while a lady in a sequined dress sang Adele covers.

Tired and hungry we decided just to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. I fished out a crumpled travel dress from the bottom of my rucksack and ran a brush through my hair. Grains of Sahara sand fell to the floor.

The restaurant was just as opulent as the lobby and we were the only ones dining at 9pm. We sat in the centre of the room, the ceiling ending somewhere in the heavens above us. Deep red cushions adorned velvet seats and an army of waiting staff lined up with hands behind their backs ready to pour wine, pick up a dropped napkin or adjust the angle of an out-of-place fork.   We ordered the Merchoui lamb.

An entire leg smelling of turmeric and cumin was set in front of us. A mound of buttery cous cous and warm flat bread accompanied. The meat fell from the bone and melted in my mouth. If I closed my eyes, the waiting staff disappeared, the high ceilings and the velvet chairs vanished and I was back down that hazy alley.

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